Luis Bazan, Pharr bridge director, speaks as city leaders participate in a groundbreaking for the expansion of the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge on Thursday in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

PHARR — City and bridge officials here held a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday for a long-awaited port infrastructure project designed to improve the flow of crossings at the international bridge.

As part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Donations Acceptance Program, the project includes additional commercial entry lanes and booths as well as two more commercial exit lanes and booths — all aimed at alleviating traffic at the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge.

According to Pharr Mayor Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez, the $40 million project has been in the works since 2015.

“We wanted to accelerate the progress in the international bridge’s footprint,” Hernandez said. “We knew there was quite a bit of money required for that to happen. Not every city has that capability, so we partnered with the federal government that we could initiate projects and have them pay into it. And we could use the private sector if need be to accelerate the growth.

“We were essentially guinea pigs. We were the first to do it. We’re very proud of that fact.”

Another project in the works will be an entomology lab at the port of entry to help identify and stop the entry of insects harmful to produce.

“We need those unknown insects identified that will not contaminate our food chain or our environment,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes they get stuck because they have to get sent out of state to be identified, so produce is stuck at the port. Thinking forward, we said, ‘Well why not bring the lab to us?’ So we’re investing to get that done next year.”

He said that the lab will be an $8 million investment. The city is currently in conversation with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Texas A&M regarding their involvement in research.

“It’s a big celebration for the city of Pharr, the state of Texas and also the country,” Hernandez added about the hopes that these efforts will largely create more traffic and more revenue for the city as well as creating jobs for the area.

The bridge accounts for 70% of the produce entering the U.S. from Mexico. According to Luis Bazan, the Pharr bridge director, the bridge accounted for $36 billion in trade last year, a number that continues to go up annually by at least $1 billion.

“(The project) is going to allow our port to continue moving forward towards the future to accommodate the future growth,” Bazan said. “There’s a demand for trade, and now with USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement), there’s more of a commitment on behalf of investors, foreign investment as well.”

Expansion project details are displayed near the northbound lanes Thursday at the Pharr International Bridge on Thursday in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

In August, the port saw over 6,000 trucks cross southbound into Mexico, a growth of 11% compared to August 2019. Such growth is notable considering other facets of travel declining due to the pandemic.

“Despite the current circumstances — what’s going on with COVID-19 and all the other setbacks we’ve had this year, we’ve been able to grow and continue to keep our heads above water,” Bazan said. “We’re still seeing traffic. We can’t complain about seeing traffic on there because it’s a good thing — we have business that’s moving forward.”

Bazan said that he anticipates more manufacturing materials and produce passing through the bridge as a result of the project.

“We have to have the facilities in place to take in that trade, take in those trucks, and bring in that commerce,” Bazan said.

Construction on the project initially began Tuesday and is expected to be completed in March 2022.

“We’re very excited about what the future holds for Pharr, and we’re just going to continue doing what we have to do,” Bazan said. “We’re going to be investing big for faster trade. We are your essential bridge — your essential connection.”